7 ways meditation can make real change in your brain
Neuroscience has now shown that meditation can make real, lasting changes in your brain in key regions for attention, cognition, memory, fear and learning and can potentially even reverse the impact of aging on the brain.
OK, you might be skeptical about meditation, or you might LOVE meditation and tell the people in your life all the time they should do it, but they may not have yet bought in.
Well here are 7 brainy good reasons why you should meditate:
Meditation can thicken your prefrontal cortex
Our prefrontal cortex (PFC) is our attentional control center. It helps us plan and organize. It is the part of the brain that most separates us from other animals. Bad news, as you age, your prefrontal cortex thins. Good news, if you meditate, you can maintain the thickness of your prefrontal cortex through aging. According to an amazing study by Dr. Sarah Lazar, Harvard, long term meditators in the 40s and 50s had the prefrontal cortex thickness of 20-30 year olds.
Reference: Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B. T., Dusek, J. A., Benson, H., Rauch, S. L., Moore, C. I., … Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893-7.
Mediation can increase the density of your grey matter
Our grey matter is the mass of our cells and dendrites that make up most of our brain and fine interconnections. Einstein is said to have had more grey matter. Just sayin’. And you don’t have to meditate a long time to see this change- Dr. Lazar demonstrated that just an 8 week course in mindfulness increased grey matter density!
Reference: Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2010). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research, 191(1), 36-43.
Meditation can increase the density of your hippocampus
Our hippocampus is the area of our brain responsible for many types of memory. Meditators- some with even just weeks of meditation- had more grey matter volume in their hippocampal areas compared to non-meditators. More grey matter means more connections which can mean greater learning and memory abilities.
Reference: Luders, E., Kurth, F., Toga, A. W., Narr, K. L., & Gaser, C. (2013). Meditation effects within the hippocampal complex revealed by voxel-based morphometry and cytoarchitectonic probabilistic mapping. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00398
Meditation can decrease the activity of amygdala -- your fight or flight
Most parts of our brain thicken and increase their connectivity with meditation. This one shrinks. It’s your amygdala, and it’s responsible for your fight or flight response. It can fire less often as you ramp us your meditation practice, and with long term meditators it can even decreases it’s size. Explaining in part why meditators are able to be cool as a cucumber in stressful situations.
Reference: Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Evans, K. C., Hoge, E. A., Dusek, J. A., Morgan, L., Pitman, R. K., … Lazar, S. W. (2009). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 5(1), 11-7.
Meditation can quiet your default mode network
Another region that decreases its activity is your default mode network. Default mode network is the network that links your prefrontal cortex and your Posterior Cingulate Cortex. It’s responsible for that endless chatter that goes on in your brain when you are at rest. According to a Harvard study, 46.9% of our thoughts are about the past or the future and not the present moment and, according to that study, this makes us unhappy. Meditation down-regulates the activity of the default mode, quieting the chatter and giving us the mental space for insight and to focus on what we want.
Reference to Harvard Study: Killingsworth, M.A. & Gilbert, D.T. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330(6006), 932. doi:10.1126/science.1192439.
References to DFM: Garrison, K. A., Zeffiro, T. A., Scheinost, D., Constable, R. T., & Brewer, J. A. (2015). Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience, 15(3), 712-20.
Meditation can increase your Compassion and Perspective taking
This is possibly my favourite benefit of meditation, and it can often be overlooked when people turn to meditation for stress release or increases in productivity. In a study of meditators engaging in a compassion based meditation (in which you wish for good things for others in the world), scientists saw actual changes in the brain in areas related to compassion. For example, they saw an increase in activity in the temporo-parietal junction, the area of the brain involved in compassion, empathy and perspective taking. And couldn’t we all use a little more compassion and empathy these days?
Reference: Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, & Davidson RJ (2008), Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise, PLoS One. 3(3)
Meditation has been shown to reduce overall brain aging
Whoa! According to the work of Dr. Eileen Luders at UCLA who undertook an extensive study looking at MRI of meditators and non-mediators, the brain of a long term meditator at 50 years old looked on average 7.5 years younger, compared to non-meditators. This is across a number of different regions. And even better, the definition of a long term meditater was someone who had practiced and average of only 5 years. Sounds like a good return on investment:)
Reference: Luders E., Kurth F., Mayer E.A., Toga A.W., Narr K.L., Gaser C. (2012). The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification. Front Hum Neurosci. 29(6), 34.
There you have it. Meditation can make real changes in your brain. Meditation can be amazing for you- but only if you actually sit down and do it. There are lots of way to begin a new practice or support an existing one, so grab a pillow, a chair, an app, or brain sensing meditation headband and get meditating!